First Amendment lesson plan: Freedom of assembly in the 1960s civil rights and antiwar movements
Appropriate academic subjects
Suitable for classes in government, social studies, and civics.
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 1963, drew as many as 250,000 people in support of civil rights – equal rights for all under the law. Organized by African-American political and religious groups, the march galvanized many other disparate groups working for racial justice and social change, and featured Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech.
Then on Nov. 15, 1969, Washington, D.C., again saw a huge protest, a largely peaceful gathering of 500,000 people opposed to the Vietnam War. It was organized by the Vietnam Moratorium Committee.
Both demonstrations were and are powerful examples of the First Amendment freedom of assembly in action to promote a cause. The First Amendment reads:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
“Jim Crow” laws (enforcing racial segregation), and desegregation are also key concepts.
Two class periods.
Several options for classroom presentation and discussion are possible.
- From books, contemporary accounts, and other sources, give students a sense of the effects each of the focusing events above may have had on shaping opinion in society. Note, for example, passage of the 1964 Civil Rights act, prohibiting segregation in public accommodations and outlawing racial discrimination in education and employment. Concerning the Vietnam War, note that scholars disagree on the overall impact of the antiwar movement on U.S. policy in Vietnam.
Have students discuss why large, organized, peaceful demonstrations can be effective in promoting a cause in society. Discuss how organizers managed to attract mass participation in an era without cellphones, internet, or social media.
- Discuss the following court cases described in this article:
- NAACP v. Alabama (1958)
- Garner v. Louisiana (1961)
- Edwards v. South Carolina (1963)
Note the differing kinds of protected protest activities involved. Explain how each case bolstered the use of First Amendment freedom of assembly.
- Discuss more recent examples of large peaceful mass protests, such as Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party rallies. Explore the damaging effect that violent protests can have on civil society:
- WTO, Seattle, 1999
- White nationalists, Charlottesville, Va., 2017
- Milo Yiannopolis speech, University of California at Berkeley, 2017
Assign students to three groups, each group taking one of the three discussion elements above. Each group should spend the remainder of the class period exploring the material questions presented. In a subsequent class, a spokesman appointed by each group should present the group's findings.
Materials and readings
Reading: Freedom of Assembly Overview, by David L. Hudson Jr.
Reading: Civil Rights & First Amendment, by David L. Hudson Jr.
Resource: Protests in the 1960s
Resource: March on Washington, History.com
Why We Can’t Wait, by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 1964; Signet Classic edition, 2000.
Peace and Freedom: The Civil Rights and Antiwar Movements in the 1960s, by Simon Hall, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.
The March on Washington: A Primary Source Exploration of the Pivotal Protest (We Shall Overcome), by Heather E. Schwartz, Capstone Press, 2014.